Written by Matt Heying

Attract The Next Gen in Manufacturing

Several years ago, I was sitting in a meeting with a company’s leadership team. The meeting was about cost control and how to improve a company metric of revenue per employee. One of the finance guys asserted that cost control is headcount control stating that “80 percent of our costs are people.” While most everyone in the room was nodding their heads, another leader immediately quipped, “But people are 100 percent of the value.”

A company’s workforce is its biggest competitive advantage. The right people in your company give you an edge in product innovation and customer success. Just as important, a company’s culture around collaboration and how people, teams, and departments work together can send you leaps and bounds ahead of the competition. But for the last several years, the manufacturing industry has faced the looming “boomer exodus” paired with a talent shortage. COVID-19 has only exacerbated the concerns. A pulse survey from PwC in June 2020 showed that only 60 percent of CFOs are confident they can retain critical talent, and less than half are confident they can build skills for the future.

The vision of Industry 4.0 has the promise to make it easier for manufacturers to attract and retain the new talent found in the incoming Generation Z (or the “zoomers,” as I like to call them). That vision is fairly simple: connecting your entire product lifecycle to the internet to improve all aspects of your business. New engineers who are starting their careers are excited to use the latest tools to create innovative solutions that align with inspirational core values. But they’re walking into an industry that is stuck in legacy processes that are decades-old. Where Industry 4.0 makes recruiting easy by creating purpose, innovation, and delight in your workforce, legacy workplaces send the best talent running (sometimes causing them to jump industries altogether). If your top competitive advantage is your people and a culture of working together, then companies need to start prioritizing ways to attract and retain talent that are in line with Industry 4.0.

The Boomer vs Zoomer Expectations in Manufacturing

Of all the obvious differences between the retiring boomer workforce and the incoming “zoomer” workforce, one that sticks out to me is what each entity expects. Recent college graduates are taught the newest in 3D technology and digital tools. Upon graduating, they’re expecting jobs to offer work using the tools of the present and future. Just look at the biggest engineering schools in the midwest. Purdue University’s Digital Enterprise Center offers certificates in model-based definition and undergraduate degrees in virtual product integration with 3D modeling, simulations, and visualization. My alma mater, Iowa State University, has the Virtual Reality Applications Center and Human-Computer Interaction program, which boasts state-of-the-art VR, AR, robotics, and user experience design.

Now look at what’s actually happening in most manufacturing companies. Legacy paper-based processes, 2D design specifications, file-based approaches, and on-prem software on desktop workstations, just to name a few. The zoomer workforce literally grew up on mobile devices. They submitted papers over email, collaborated on homework with cloud-based apps, and gamed with anyone in the world instantly. Those graduating in the next several years will have spent a portion of their studies fully online. The likelihood of the top engineers accepting positions at companies who hand them a 2D blueprint (when they haven’t even been taught in college how to read one) is next to zero.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Most hiring managers agree that you need a healthy mix of skill, culture fit, and aptitude for learning. For example, consider what training looks like for service repair on a vehicle. Decades ago, service technicians were handed a 3-ring binder to understand how to service and repair a machine. Today, they’re given the same instructions but now on a PDF and tablet. That isn’t Industry 4.0 or digital transformation. It’s just virtual paper instead of actual paper. 

2 Ways to Attract & Retain Talent

I have seen firsthand what digital transformation can do to attract and retain talent. In one of my previous companies 15 years ago, we built elements of Industry 4.0 into software for the finance and accounting industry. Our customers typically had young, entry-level employees working on very menial, tedious reporting workflows. They would tire away on time-consuming work that forced them to use antiquated tools and file-based workflows manually during mandatory “work weekends” because there simply weren’t enough weekdays in the month to close their books. After introducing a cloud-based solution to that market, we automated workflows, connected data to one source of truth, and simplified very complex accounting concepts with an intuitive interface. Turnover dropped, morale boosted, and the work product improved. 

From my experience, manufacturing isn’t much different than that industry was 15 years ago. Tech stacks are decades old, and engineers spend time on extremely tedious, manual tasks. If the manufacturing industry can modernize its IT infrastructure—similar to the way the financial organizations did—manufacturing can be interesting, exciting, and purposeful. Here are two places I suggest manufacturers start to modernize:

  1. Inspire new talent to make a difference. The previous generations that are now retiring looked for stability and high pay in a company. Gartner says that the incoming zoomer generation favors skill development and work versatility with meaning and purpose behind their work. The best talent will be looking for a fast-paced environment that promises to help change the world for the better. Make sure the environment and culture align with these expectations.
  2. Embrace the technology that engineers are already using every day. Like it or not, workers in their 20’s and 30’s are fluent in technology, and the cloud is second nature. Cloud backups and storage, social media, cell phones, and real-time apps are ubiquitous. New graduates spend semesters learning 3D CAD tools and processes that keep them connected to collaborators. Start adopting the processes and tools that the newest generation expects to ensure they are productive and successful from the start. If you aren’t doing this yet, I guarantee at least one of your competitors is already on their way. 

Modernize Your Company with Digital Tools that Feed Rapid Innovation 

In manufacturing, one of the most prominent challenges I see with the new generation’s desire to have a fast-paced, innovative, and collaborative environment are the legacy technology systems and processes of the past. I was once one of those young mechanical engineers that entered the workforce ready to move fast and innovate, but the pace was too slow and antiquated, so I switched to software.

In software development, we thrive on continuous improvement, agile changes, and feedback from others, but we are constantly running into outdated code that’s causing the system to be slow and difficult to make new improvements. We call this technical debt. Manufacturers have a mountain of technical debt. 

One of the biggest pieces of technical debt are the walls (virtual and real) creating silos between departments. For example, a product’s design is practically inaccessible outside the walls of engineering. This makes it difficult for teams in manufacturing, procurement, sales, and service to do their jobs effectively and to give feedback to the other groups to improve the product and process. For example, shop floor technicians don’t know what the product should look like once it’s fully assembled, service teams page through virtual PDFs to try and figure out how to service a part they’ve never seen, sales teams sell feature options, and supply chain managers only know part numbers. Not only does that make it challenging for each team to do their work, but it also means that engineers don’t get critical input on their designs (my colleague Jim Zwica wrote an extensive blog on the importance of the feedback loop). If companies can make designs more accessible, innovation will happen sooner and your workforce will be more engaged in the process.

My current company, Vertex, makes it easy to connect teams to product designs and gain feedback from anyone in the extended enterprise. We’re helping customers in manufacturing ditch service PDFs for interactive work instructions, visualize engineer-to-order products, embed 3D on the factory floor, and easily understand IoT data in its context. To learn how we create a culture of innovation to help you attract and retain talent, visit https://vertexvis.com/products/vertex-digital-twin-platform.

About Matt Heying

Matt has over 15 years of experience in designing and building B2B cloud-based collaborative applications in manufacturing, finance, and defense. In his role at Vertex, Matt oversees the product management and product marketing teams in addition to leading initiatives on new markets and products. This unique position gives him the insight into ensuring new product capabilities match customer expectations and needs.

Matt received his Bachelors and Masters degrees in Mechanical Engineering from Iowa State University. Matt’s graduate work at the Virtual Reality Applications Center (VRAC) focused on 3D visualization and machine learning for mechanical and materials design applications.